Market makeover

Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market has been transformed into culinary destination.

jerusalem shuk 521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
jerusalem shuk 521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
It is early on Thursday morning and the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, widely known as the shuk, is getting off to a slow start. By the afternoon, the narrow alleyways will be crowded with shoppers dragging plaid cloth shopping carts and tourists peering earnestly at their guide books.
But one place is already crowded. At Café Mizrachi, every table is taken. In one corner a well-known wine maker meets a wine critic.
At another table, a mother with a newborn nurses with one hand as she munches her homemade brioche with the other. A student settles in with his laptop for an extended stay.
“The old generation came to buy food, not to drink coffee,” says proprietor Eli Mizrachi, chairman of the Mahane Yehuda merchants association. “But the new generation wanted more. They wanted a place with entertainment, where they could buy gifts and where they could stop for a coffee.”
Mahane Yehuda, a warren of alleys between Agrippas Street and Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem, is changing. Long a Jerusalem landmark known for the freshest fruits and vegetables, it has moved upscale – becoming a culinary destination for locals and tourists alike. While many welcome the changes, others fear that some of the authenticity of the shuk will be lost.
Coffee shop owner Mizrachi personifies this change. His father had owned a stall in the shuk since 1952 selling nuts and dried fruit. Mizrachi, now age 60, opened his café in 2002, at the height of the intifada, when frequent Palestinian suicide bombings made downtown Jerusalem into a ghost town.
During that time, he says, an estimated onethird of the shuk’s 350 businesses closed down.
Today some 200,000 people visit the shuk every week, patronizing shops selling everything from olives, smoked fish and spices to pots and pans. Mizrachi says he sees no downside to the recent changes.
“The shuk has opened up Jerusalem for the whole country,” Mizrachi tells The Jerusalem Report. “People in Tel Aviv used to fly to New York for breakfast. Now they come here to go to the shuk and they travel throughout the city.The shuk is a national treasure.”
One shop many of the Tel Avivians are visiting is Eli Bashar’s cheese shop, which offers more than 1,000 varieties of cheese from all over Europe, plus 700 different wines, 90 percent of them Israeli.
“Israeli wine is excellent but the cheese is not quite there,” Bashar says as he serves a throng of customers in his crowded store. “There is a culinary awakening all over Israel. People want higher-range products.”
One of Bashar’s loyal customers is wine critic Jonathan Livny, who says he spends at least $100 every week on Bashar’s cheeses. He says the shuk is changing many Israelis’ image of Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is always associated in people’s minds with holiness and conflict – ultra-Orthodox and secular, Arabs and Jews,” says Livny, who shops at Mahane Yehuda every Friday morning. “This is one of the few places of sanity in the whole city.”
That said, Friday mornings are anything but calm in the shuk, where sharp elbows are needed to make your way through the crowds thronging the streets. Merchants sing out the prices, housewives bargain, and produce disappears into plastic bags. A man wearing a gold crown stands at the intersection of an alleyway offering tastes of a coffee-flavored sesame-seed confection from the Kingdom of Halva. Nearby, a merchant promises the freshest cherries in town.
Chef Tali
Chef Tali Friedman often guides tourists through the shuk on Friday morning but she makes sure to go early before the throngs of shoppers descend. “Friday is the main day for the vendors to sell their products and I would never do anything to hurt their livelihood,” says Friedman.
Friedman, who trained at Le Notre restaurant in France and worked as a chef for many years, offers culinary tours that include stops and tastings at various market stalls. At David Dagim, a well-known fish store in the center of the shuk, she goes behind the counter and quickly produces a tuna seviche made from raw fish marinated in citrus juice, all the while explaining how to choose the freshest fish. On some tours, purchases are made in the shuk and participants return to her studior to cook a meal together and then eat it on her spectacular rooftop terrace.
Her studio is on Carob Street, just off Mulberry Street, behind a nondescript metal door.
One flight up is the light-filled cooking studio with jars of spices and oils. Two flights further is the spacious rooftop, high above the dust and noise of the shuk. Even on hot days, a breeze blows up here and Friedman often hosts events here overlooking the main street of the market. Trucks are allowed from late at night until 10 in the morning. After that, the street becomes a pedestrian precinct.
“If you’re here on Friday mornings, you see a river of people on the street,” she says. “This is where there’s action.” Friedman, who has also written a popular cookbook called Jerusalem: A Culinary Story, says the shuk has been part of a culinary revolution in Israel.
‘The Israeli kitchen is one of the most interesting in the world,” she says. “We cook in the Mediterranean style with lots of herbs, olive oil, and seasonal produce but we also preserve the culture of each ethnic group here. It is fresh and simple, but gourmet as well.”
Several gourmet restaurants have also opened up in the shuk, most notably Machneyudah, a non-kosher restaurant run by three of the country’s hottest chefs. The menu, written on a chalkboard, changes every day. It can take weeks to get a reservation.
Main courses range from lamb stew bourgignon-style to black risotto with cauliflower and sepia. For those with a simpler palate, or just in more of a hurry, there are a range of ethnic restaurants, the ever-present shwarma and falafel stands, bakeries and even a fish and chips stall that visiting Brits say is “not bad.”
At night, the shuk transforms itself into a pulsating night spot, with half a dozen bars and live music. One notable attraction is the Casino Café de Paris, owned by Eli Mizrachi and Sha’anan Streett, lead singer of Hadag Nachash, Israel’s most successful band. The bar was a British Mandate officers’ club and sometime bordello. The impressive list of specialty cocktails includes the Yitzhak Rabin – scotch whiskey, soda, ice and an olive branch.
One of the unique features of the shuk is themix of shoppers – Jews, Arabs, secular, religious, rich and poor.
At a fish shop, Jonathan Goldschmidt, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, is buying whitefish fillets for a post-wedding celebration he is hosting.
He says the prices in the shuk have risen recently, but so have prices everywhere. He shops here twice a week – on Mondays for fruits and vegetables and on Thursdays for Shabbat.
Real people
“The shuk keeps me in touch with real people who aren’t all ultra-Orthodox,” he says.
Mahane Yehuda has come a long way from its origins in the late 19th century, when Arab merchants sold their produce there during the Ottoman period and sanitary conditions were dubious. In the late 1920s, under the British Mandate, the market was cleaned up and permanent stalls and roofs were built. The market expanded as Jerusalem grew.
Towards the end of the 20th century, terrorism came to the market, which became a frequent target for Palestinian bombs, some of them hidden inside hollowed-out watermelons and left on the stands. In 1997, 16 people were killed and 178 wounded in double suicide bombings. In 2002, a female suicide bomber blew herself up, killing seven people and wounding more than 100.
In 2000, Mizrachi and other merchants organized a major renovation of the shuk, widening the alleyways and installing more lighting.
Today the shuk sees more foot traffic than ever before.
The shuk became the venue for events like Balabasta, an after-dark dance and music festival launched in 2010, which drew huge crowds until late into the night, when the area used to be deserted. Thousands of people came to enjoy the festival, which featured free music and art performances at each intersection, with art installations and actors on balconies overlooking the market.
The festival was one of the pilot projects that grew into the Jerusalem Season of Culture, now one of the city’s most popular visitor attractions.
“Balabasta was one of the most successful ideas and put us on the map,” says Karen Brunwasser, deputy director of the Season of Culture. “Mahane Yehuda offers inspiration of how to tap into Jerusalem’s natural attributes and through innovation unleash them in a way that makes them relevant and contemporary. The market is authentic Jerusalem.
Innovative cultural events that respect the place have proved so appealing that they draw people from all over the country.”
She says the new and improved shuk has helped revitalize the entire city.
“Culture is the catalyst of renewal,” says Brunwasser “If we get it right here, it will resonate in all of Jerusalem.”
But not everyone believes these changes are all good. Elran Shrafler, who cooks at Azura with five of his nine brothers, says he opposes the transformation of the shuk.
“Jerusalemites and our steady clientèle can’t find room here anymore,” he says of the restaurant which cooks home-style Turkish food.
“Some of the vegetable and fish stores are being bought out and it’s not like it used to be.”
Tali Friedman agrees that some of the merchants are selling their stalls after receiving attractive offers. Real estate prices in the shuk have quadrupled in 10 years.
“The core of the shuk is onions and garlic, mint and parsley,” Friedman says. “We have to remember that and try to keep it that way.”